A writer friend,with whom you shared many bottles of champagne, delighted in playing the what-if game, His version, "What age other than the present would you prefer to live in?" You both speculated about the variety of times in which it might have been possible to live and be a writer.
Such are the subsidiary joys of champagne. Your friend chose the Victorian Era, enumerating the ensemble of writers, artists, and musicians who flourished. You wanted about twenty years later, which your friend said was cheating because those times were encroaching upon the generation into which you were assembled and delivered.
Queen Victoria died in 1901, thus you could accept her era because Mark Twain, the writer you've felt the longest and deepest connection with was alive and flourishing at that time. He managed to squeeze in nine or ten years into the new century.
Sometimes, when there was too much champagne, or there was not sufficient time to drink all the champagne available, you'd hold out for the fourteenth century, because that was the time for another hero, Geoffrey Chaucer, and his contemporary, Giovanni Bocaccio.
By this time, you'd got around to reading Barbara Tuchman's masterful compendium, A Distant Mirror, in which she not only isolated the fourteenth century, she showed its frequent parallels to the twentieth century.
You put in a good deal of reading among the nineteenth century group, looking for, and finding a number of literary companions you might not have come to until these more recent times, where you feel compelled to discern patterns in narrative styles, scope of imagination, and the literary equivalent of apostolic succession, which is to say the manners in which such vital elements as voice, technique, subject matter, and point of view were articulated.
Who influenced whom? Why would a writer who seemed to you to have such an ability to delegate to his characters as Honore Balzac did, be impressed by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper? Why, indeed, the Europeans love Cooper when they had their own Sir Walter Scott. Much as you admire some European writers, you find yourself unable to grasp European taste. Why do the French, for example, find Jerry Lewis so engaging?
Twain made it into the twentieth century, your century. True enough, he passed the great bulk of his years in the nineteenth century. Of equal truth, you passed most of your life in the twentieth. There is close to a hundred-year gap in your dates of birth, but there is comfort in knowing he passed his later years in your century. In similar fashion, there is comfort in seeing the way his language holds up.
The volumes of Twain's autobiography, released a hundred years after his death, in accordance with his wishes, are not your favorites, a problem--or series of problems--that could be his contemporary editor's doing or a combination of her doing and his.
The matter at hand here has a direct relationship to the continuing sustenance and guidance you get from reading his works; it relates to his use of language, in general, in relationship to its style and clarity, and in relationship to seeming freshness. Read a paragraph or two of any of Twain's contemporaries, in particular one who came upon the scene when Twain was well established at age fifty, D. H. Lawrence. Now, read a paragraph or two from Twain.
You are no longer fifty. You are certainly not well established. But you are aware of being a contestant in a critical race, the race to keep up with the inevitable evolution of narrative tone, of technique, of theme and subject matter, of characters, themselves, of whom Mr. Twain has said the reader shall always be able to distinguish the corpses from the live characters.
Sure enough, you turn to your friend Irony for assistance in this desire to keep abreast of the evolving language and the shape of story. "Funny you should come to me," Irony says when you are caught looking back, over your shoulder to the past for hints and insights relative to tracking the present. What could you possibly learn from a trusted eighteenth-century Scottish author, Tobias Smollett? Why has his Humphrey Clinker stayed with you these many years, calling to you from time to time for rereading?
You are more than content being from the twentieth century and a guest in this new century; you are alert to remove those adverbs and albatrosses of past centuries, eager to look past the limitations you could not see before.
Monday, November 24, 2014
A writer friend,with whom you shared many bottles of champagne, delighted in playing the what-if game, His version, "What age other than the present would you prefer to live in?" You both speculated about the variety of times in which it might have been possible to live and be a writer.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Some of the more obvious parallels for you, between the essay and the story, involve the thrust to arrive at some kind of outcome, a condition you speak of as negotiated settlement, when you write about and think about story. The essay arrives at an outcome you've begun to regard as a position, which is your way of saying an opinion or stand.
Story and essay require an emphasis, the former based on an emotional journey through a landscape of fantasy purporting to be real, the latter, by no means lacking in emotions, is more a journey through the imagination. Each medium is filled with potential distraction and, thus, anticlimax, your recognition that each in its way, the story and the essay, is dramatic.
You take to the essay for an opportunity to argue with and for yourself. You call upon your sensory apparatus to evaluate, decide, then arrive at some form of marching orders that will guide your behavior in the world about you. You've in a sense prepared yourself while writing an essay to enter a conversation with other individuals in a setting of Reality--some specific place, some specific event.
You often enter these conversations as a way of essaying--testing--these marching orders, hopeful they will stand up, but not feel threatened should they collapse in the chaos of a failed train of ideas.
When you enter story, you are meting out your impressions and questions to an ensemble cast of characters you've created in order to supply yourself the kinds of emotional experiences that fuel your awareness and add spice to your inner dreams and the Reality about you.
There are times when you forget the arguments and discussions you've forged out in essays, but more often than not, you remember the characters you've created. Their exploits and risk taking fuel your senses to the point where you might be tempted to think the events you dramatize in a story have had real time presence in Reality.
Your purpose here is to expand on essay, the subtle way it effects your writing story and writing about story, the way it defines you by describing you for yourself.
Writing story is putting fantasy and imagination together, writing scripts you'd be pleased to serve as director thereof. Writing essay is the essence of writing memoir of you. With the possible exception of some notes, business letters, and mere logistics--Yes, see you at Cafe Luna at two on Thursday. Yes, understood, coffee at The Daily Grind on Monday--no starch on the shirts--everything else is a part of your memoir.
Forget that you have not in any formal sense set out to write a memoir. Indeed, forget you've been teaching a memoir class for four years, are signed to give a day-long memoir workshop in February. Forget that you have managed to inject story into your memoir classes, emphasizing the difference between the evoked presence of individuals at specific incidents, instead of providing a mere description, as though the individuals and events were journalism.
Additional things to forget: Forget that the journals, notebooks, and intermediate jottings you've written since about age eighteen are for the most part focused on prising out the secrets of story telling from the walnut shell in which it has been encased for all these years. You, trying to figure out how to understand a story, make the format work for you, then dig a bit deeper, trying to get the walnut out in one piece, are writing your memoir, whether by deliberate action or compulsive action.
If this is true, and you're beginning to believe it is, and you've been at your memoir students to tell their memoirs as story, you have some serious essaying to do. You like story because of its structure, its outright inhospitable attitude to what I call information dumps, information included so it will not go to waste.
If lists of things liked and not liked, scraps and portions of narratives, outlines for books that may or may not be written, scrawled descriptions and overheard bits of conversation, may be said to be memoir, you have a good deal of thinking to do.
A favored saying of yours within the classroom is, "In geometry, parallel lines meet only in infinity. In story, they meet in the last chapter."
If memoir and story are parallel lines, you bloody well have to find a way to get to infinity, or arrange some kind of meeting.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
You can learn to write story by at first being too busy to write story. But you have to learn to listen to the business, then build it into the story.
The reason story is so difficult to capture to your satisfaction in early drafts has to do with the tempo and intensity of the artificial reality a story needs in order to appear plausible. The great irony here begins with the time available for writing, measured against the activities related to working at jobs and coping with the routine necessities of living.
For about three years, your first job in publishing was something you could handle in the confines of the forty-hour work week, but as you began to rise in the company responsibility hierarchy, you began to feel about your time the way you felt about the large sack of cat chow you'd purchased for your then cat, Sam, after it became clear that rats or mice were getting at it.
In typical fashion, more responsibility at work brings you to the notice of more persons, one of whom you wished to be your mentor. She was all too willing. Her quid pro quo was bringing you into one of her pet causes, The Mystery Writers of America, where she was an officer.
You were her "new blood" target. Up to that point, you'd been more than fond of the mystery as a medium, but soon, you were hanging out with authors you'd read, all of whom had favorite writers they were only too willing to pass along to you.
Any semblance of spare time went to reading, soaking up things you'd never learned at the university or in any class room, excepting one English prof, your first mentor, and your mystery mentor. To her, you turned in frustration, wondering aloud and with some vigor how you could produce pages when there was no time.
Her answer was the same one you give to your students with the same question. "One word," she said. "Priority. Tell yourself writing is your top priority, then listen to yourself." You did. The results made the point.
So there you were, now a senior editor at work, which meant you had a certain leeway in bypassing the committee, which included the publisher, another editor whose taste you openly criticized, and an editor in chief, who had a habit of running off to buy furniture for his new apartment. You were also editing two magazines, reading suspense fiction with a growing hunger, writing a newsletter for your new organization, and trying to avoid saying yes to a moonlighting job editing a mystery magazine.
Somehow, you had prioritized your way into at least an hour of working on your own interests a day, marveling at your ability to produce anything, even relishing the fact that what you were producing was not bringing you to the sense of command over the material you were visualizing. By day, you were editing some of the most prolific mystery and science fiction writers of the day. By night, you were close reading others and writing your own hour's worth a day. This did not stack up well. You could see that. So did your mentor. "You are," she said, "building up your awareness and your focus. If you keep it up, you will learn how to build simultaneous pressure."
You took some time getting the hang of "simultaneous pressure," and you must admit you got help from editing and from adding one more metaphorical rat to your metaphorical bag of cat kibble, which is to say you'd jumped right into it by agreeing to teach in a graduate-level writing program.
A conventional trope you find as ubiquitous as Salvation Army Santas at Christmas season informs us, "If you want something done properly and fast, assign the task to a busy person." You may not get it done fast, but you do believe you get it done, at least to the point where you understand the ramifications of being a busy person.
So what if twenty or so percent of your business is self-inflicted, which is to say, yes, you understand you could be more productive by the simple step of focusing more on your scheduling. Fewer and shorter naps, say. Shorter coffee breaks. Less time with the crossword puzzle. Say farewell to your book reviewing activities.
But listen to you, telling yourself, "No matter." You have a full sense of what it is to have your moments filled. Even your times of boredom have contracted to mere moments, and it is reasonable to say of these that they are more likely to happen when you are waiting for traffic signals to change. Or you could say that you have developed a rigid intolerance for boredom, doing something to dismiss it the moment it comes upon you like street people in quest of your spare change.
You know filled moments, and now you are active in your pursuit of learning how to discern those in your ficton and the stories you edit. Stories are busy environments. They don't have time. Something has to go. Stories need to prioritize. Which things come first? The other things can catch the later train.
Friday, November 21, 2014
You did not spend much time thinking about figures of speech in your writing until you began reading, then rereading the mystery novels of Raymond Chandler. There was some inherent worldweariness in his language that painted every scene with grace under the weight of melancholy.
In addition, Chandler's stories were gravid with the awareness of the things people under stress would do to one another and to themselves. His characters cheated, betrayed, gambled, entered untenable relationships, became dried-out, withered husks of their earlier idealism. They dreamed California dreams with Nebraska sensitivities, watched California sunsets, and hid their accents of birth. In their attics--for there were no cellars--they kept shoe boxes filled with their high school trophies.
Even now, when you return to him, you think about the effects his stories had on you, and how, for the longest time, in envy of his figures of speech, you belabored figures of your own to the point of weighting down your prose with a leaden self-consciousness and near pedantry. You looked for and found rooms with the dust of forgotten dreams, unearthed characters whose words were as badly pronounced as their unrealized dreams. Thus, yes; you wrote metaphor and simile from the head, not from the memories of missed connections and choruses of refusals.
There is no telling how long you trod this self-conscious and self-absorbed path of metaphor and simile, pausing to find the comparisons and relevance at the expense of the story. You wrote this lack of story off under the convenient heading of being more a literary type, character-driven rather than plot-driven, two additional terms that made you fearful you lacked qualifications to tell stories.
Diligent practice must not be construed as a guarantee of desired result. Even while practicing a good deal, reading writers such as Chandler caused you exquisite despair. But practice also led you to the negotiated settlement of not forcing metaphor and simile. If they came, well and good. If your prose came forth crisp and lucid, there were worse consequences to suffer
Somewhere in the murky depths of junior high school, you lurched into the mine fields of figures of speech. A metaphor is. A simile is. This was either the seventh grade or the eighth, probably the latter, because you'd come back to California mid-way through the seventh, so relieved to be back that you took a holiday from being contrary.
Definitely the eighth. "Why is it you are here?" asked Mr, Engberg, the Boy's Vice Principal.
"Isn't that a bit vague? Why are you really here?"
"Are you one of these fellows who needs everything drawn out? If you can raise the issue of insubordination, you can tell me why you are here."
You decided to come clean. You liked Mr. Engberg, sensing about him a sternness wound about an armature of agreeability. "We're being introduced to figures of speech and the teacher refuses to recognize synecdoche as a topic of discussion."
This is why you liked Mr. Engberg. "Are you sure the issue is her refusal to recognize synecdoche? Could it also be her refusal to recognize your vocabulary?"
In your recollection of the moment, you nodded, but said nothing, a dangerous step but those junior high school years and the high school years to come were sullen years in which it seemed best to settle in as best you could to the role of a B student, better than average but not willing to share much of the curiosities and frustrations arguing within.
Your use of figurative speech was kept at a respectful tight rein until, now and then, one would seem to appear from the same source all your narrative shared. Hooray. Cause for a sigh of relief for the awareness that you were not writing to demonstrate an ability with figurative speech. In addition, you'd long worked your way past the notion of description, into the choppier seas of inference and evocation.
Once in a while, a useful figure comes tumbling out of a sudden, complex thought, where a character is caught up in one of those moments sometimes captured by a stranger's camera, where expectations are up, guard is down, and the worst consequences present themselves, smiling, unhesitating.
You look at it with suspicion, wondering whether to leave it or not, because now, as you were bombarded with adverbs in the third grade, you are bombarded with the tough love advice to kill your darlings, remove all those tones and quirky turns of phrase that shout out to the world, "Oh, like me. Like me."
Sometimes figurative language cries out to you the way puppies in animal shelters try their pitch lines on you, wanting you to take them home.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Of this you are sure: No matter how remarkable a thing is, there is always a price to be paid for it. You may well be able to see things other persons cannot, but for each one of those things you are able to see, there is an opposite number which other persons readily see but you do not.
You take these visions for granted. You also take their consequences for granted. This goes some distance along the way of reckoning why you are often distracted with the beauty of some connection you've only moments ago seen, as if for the first time, and so apt to bump into fixed objects or miss entirely some vision, some meteor shower everyone else about you can see with no difficulty at all.
Your favorite example of this phenomena in vivid action is Cassandra, the most beautiful daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Cassandra was well able to see things others could not. She could, in fact, see future events. In greater fact, she spoke of these visions, all of which proved accurate. Her price to pay; no one believed her.
She did not seek this all-powerful gift of vision. Call it a gift from one of the gods, Apollo, whom, you might now guess, had a thing for her, Cassandra, so the story goes, would have him not. Wouldn't look good for a god to take back a gift--any gift, and so Apollo tempered his revenge by adding that bit of boilerplate to the gift.
Such mechanisms fascinate you to the point where you look for traces of the wires, ropes, and pulleys behind the scenes, the devices by which magic, Reality, and everything in between are manipulated with the consummate skill of a wizard. These special effects, even in the most exaggerated fantasy, are often quite simple, often a mere flick of the that-s-the-way=things-are head.
Fond as you are of wizardry, of the Arthurian Merlin and the unabashed T. H. White wizardry of The Once and Future King, the wizardry you have been at work tracking down as though you were off on some hero's journey, is the wizardry of bringing a story to life to the point where no amount of argument will convince you these characters are not real flesh and blood, engaged in purpose and motive.
There are times when it seems to you how, in the midst of so many other dramatic pairs of opposites, there is this one, in which the two types of persons in the universe are those who are given brief visions of uncommon things and those persons who recognize these individuals as incredible naive narrators.
A favored play of yours is John Frayn's Noises Off, an absolute romp which reveals the strings, wires, and behind-the-scenes operations of the performance of a live play. Watching it in performance, you are reminded of automatic wrist watches with a glass lens permitting the user to watch the wheels, cogs, springs, and levers in full play, powering and moving the watch along without the need for winding or, heaven forefend, a battery.
When story works, to preserve the analogy of the automatic watch, you know what time it is. You know the issues, the hidden agendas and springs, the jewels of the mechanism, and the way the elements are meshed together to produce a result you find even more dramatic than a battery-driven watch.
In the automatic watch, which depends on the movement of the wearer to power it, time becomes more personal, more immediate, more an integral part of a larger organism, and, thus, more authentic. Of course this is flawed logic.
Automated time is no different than battery-powered or spring-driven time. But there is that effect. You at present have all three, including a pocket watch that needs to be wound by inserting a key into a special slot. You have an automatic and several battery-powered watches. More often than not, when selecting a watch, when tiring of a face you once thought was the more exciting, you reach without thinking for the automatic.
A few shakes of the wrist, if it is not already ticking away, and it sets forth with an alert and eager pace, reminding you less that time is passing, perhaps even getting away from you, but rather that time and story are both eternal. They were here before you and will outlast you. They mesh events, one against another, causing yet other levers and jewels and dials to wake up.
Story and watches are devices, taking the pulse of the universe and those who live within it, both real and invented. Depending which page you are at in a novel or short story, characters stir into life, acting out the destiny of planets in orbit, levers of gravity and balance in play, seconds meshing with minutes and hours, all the while a character or a real person draws out the response to a question, Do you love me? Do I matter to you? Isn't it wonderful?
And you wait, spellbound, for the answer.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
For the longest time in your early years, you regarded the worlds about you in the most literal way. Perhaps this early lack of awareness of such a thing as nuance was the instigator of your present day love for word play and puns, the more groan-producing, the better.
Perhaps your fall from taking things as they were was the equivalent of the trail of cookies the witch set out for Hansel and Gretel, although that trail led them to the oven, and the trail you followed led you to the life of words.
An early loss of literal innocence came when your father, in some attempt to make the move from California to the small New Jersey town of his birth, advised you that if you were to stroll through the farmer's market held each week at the train station, you'd hear many tongues.
Enter another perhaps here. Perhaps your experiences with your father's dead-pan delivery led you to question the most innocent-sounding statements for hidden meanings. You were drawn to hidden meanings from those early days on, toward and into the present. The notion of hearing tongues intrigued you then and has, in the full feather of nostalgia, remains to this day.
You did indeed hear tongues, some of which you recognized; theirs had to be identified for you. You already knew some Spanish, some Latin, some French. Your father led you to a sense of what Hungarian sounded like and, based on sounds you'd written down phonetically, he was able to help you identify Polish.
Tongue, as both a play on words and a trampoline, led you in memorable directions, including such outliers as speaking in tongues or glossolalia, tongues as languages, tongues of fire, tongue-and-groove construction, tongue lashing, tongue-twister or -twisting, and forked tongue as in the lies spoken to Indians by whites.
Only last week, as you watched a television drama in the dual process of procrastinating necessary work at hand and gaining insights for a writing project, you met with surprise and delight a character in the process of examining his lunch sandwich. The sandwich was tongue, presumably cow, pickle, and a single smear of mustard. From your own experiences with such fare, you transmogrified the bread from nondescript to rich,earthy pumpernickel.
Tone appeared in occasional rotation in your parental home, to your great delight, because its appearance often meant at least one reprise in your school lunch bag. You were already aware of your father's joke related to tongue, itching for the opportunity to use it on your own.
"How," your father asked your mother, over a large tongue, still exuding steam on a serving platter, "can you bring yourself to eat anything from a cow's mouth?" You recall his splendid timing, the long, thoughtful pause before he added, "If you don't mind, I'll have some eggs."
The first time you heard the joke, you could neither control your laughter nor your awareness that this was a weapon of sorts, something to be cherished, studied. Another perhaps in a list of perhapses you consider when seeking moments and things that defined what you are and what you have become. You recall that moment whenever some of the uses of tongue, such as those mentioned earlier, arise in conversation or your eagerness to, as your father once put it, hear tongues.
No coincidence that the Spanish word for tongue, lengua, jumps out at you in taquerias and restaurants with a Mexican restaurant. Tacos de lengua. Huevos revueltos con lengua. And of course tortas de lengua.
Sometimes, when you come to compose, and the screen stares back at you with a daunting blank glare, or your note pad remains a reproof, you take to playing with language, thinking you have somehow become tongue-tied, and the natural consequence, now that you have a cat, of a cat having got your tongue, of your father's joke, which you have indeed put to use.
And with a sudden certainty, you are no longer tongue-tied.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Screenplays and scripts are, in their intended way, roadmaps or diagrams of stories rather than representations of the intended action. Although some writers of novels and short stories are able to make the jump from one medium to another, not all can.
One poignant example of a skilled novelist who had difficulty comes to mind in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was, if anything, baffled by the transition. Even though there are now four film versions of Gatsby, you could make the argument that his own works did not lend themselves to film.
A writer who could do both well is William Goldman, who seems able to make the switch with ease. A more extreme example than Goldman is Denis Lehane, who in recent months has reversed the usual pattern of novelizing his original screenplay, The Drop.
The language of the screenplay and script is present moment or present time, better still, present tense. There is a "we" presence, indication us as the audience. We see. Most of the time, what we see is some form of action. We see a man walking down a street, taking rapid yet deliberate steps, demonstrating his eagerness, perhaps even his sense of urgency. The man is now presented to us.
Here is a character being described and presented to us in the Eric Warren Singer and David Russell screenplay, American Hustle. IRVING ROSENFELD, not a small man, gets dressed and meticulously constructs his combover. Camera WRAPS AROUND, see his hands with rings adjust his dark velvet suit, up to his face, serious, concentrated, intense, he is composing himself before a performance. Irving is now dressed, ready, and walks down the hall to another room.
The only thing we're told is that Irving is not a small man. We even learn of his sparse crop of hair through action. An actor can--and did--follow that road map. The description is specific enough so that within those few opening sentences, we can almost sense the way Irving thinks. In a novelized version of that activity, the qualifier "almost" is removed.
There is no longer the we of the audience or of the camera. There is the you of the reader, eavesdropping on Irving Rosenfeld, taking clues from surroundings and circumstances in the same way Irving is taking them.
The difference between the two media, the screenplay and the novel, is the difference between the road map and the eavesdrop. Both media can be and ofter are increasingly intimate. Your concern here is the techniques writers use when writing about events and the way characters convey the writers' intentions to the audience but even more so to the reader.
The elephant in the living room is the writer, a fact dripping with irony. We are suspicious of the author appearing to tell us things, so much so that we have developed a mantra familiar to many storytellers: Show, don't tell.
There is no luxury for telling in film or play. One character may say to another, "Relax." Or perhaps, "Hey, chill." But neither film nor play can display a sign, Mary is agitated. Nor should a novel or short story, but look at the times when we come across authorial interventions such as, "Mary fidgeted nervously," or the more reductionist "Mary was nervous."
You like to think you've been at this aspect of narrative writing long enough so that even your earliest drafts show some sense of grasping the need to make every step of the way, every beat, deploy action rather than suggest or describe it. But there are times when you come to the material while wearing your editorial hat, which means you see some trace of yourself, holding up the equivalent of a card with the proper attitude or emotion lettered on it.
This does not mean that everything in a novel or short story needs to be dramatized because doing so would add measurable chunks of time and event to the story for the sole purpose of bringing on dramatic information, information about the characters, or overall shifts in the concerns and issues of the story. But this does mean that the closer you can come to suggesting, implying, intimating many of these things,the more immediate and convincing the story will be.
Your basic, general thoughts about such matters have their origin in your belief that the essential dramatic unit, the scene, must be as fraught with undercurrent, double entendre, mixed levels of communication, and the loud sizzle of lit fuses. There must be some basic tension, radiating outward, even before the scene begins, because, to quote the aforementioned William Goldman, "Start late, leave early." By which he means, start your scenes several beats after you'd thought to start them. Leave at the most noticeable, unpolitical moment.